Saudi reports first coronavirus death, UAE gears up for lockdown

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia on Tuesday reported its first death from the coronavirus, a 51-year-old Afghani resident, while the United Arab Emirates’ main airports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi said they would temporarily suspend all passenger flights from Thursday.

Saudi Health Ministry spokesman Mohammed Abdelali told a news conference the fatality occurred on Monday night in Medina, where the man’s health had deteriorated quickly after reporting to the emergency room.

The kingdom took drastic measures early on to contain the disease, including halting international flights, suspending the Umrah year-round pilgrimage, closing mosques, schools, malls and restaurants, and imposing a nighttime curfew.

It recorded 205 new infections on Tuesday, bringing the total in the six Gulf Coordination Council states to more than 2,100, mostly in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Six people have died three in Bahrain, two in the UAE and the latest in Saudi Arabia.

Kuwait, which has also imposed a curfew, arrested and will deport nine expatriates for violating the curfew, state news agency KUNA said. The health ministry said all citizens and residents arriving from abroad must enter 14-day quarantine.

The UAE, the region’s tourism and business hub and an air transit centre, has followed other Gulf Arab states in trying to curb the spread of the virus, urging people to stay at home, but not announcing an official curfew or suspending work. It has suspended prayers in mosques for four weeks starting Tuesday.

The UAE, with 198 infections, said on Monday it would suspend all passenger flights after 48 hours and close malls, commercial centres, restaurants, cafes and open retail food markets for two weeks starting Wednesday.

But the latest announcements from Dubai Airports and Abu Dhabi Airport said the halt in passenger flights, including transit flights, would start as of 11:59 p.m. local time on Tuesday. Evacuation flights and cargo services continue.

Carriers Emirates [EMIRA.UL] and Etihad Airways have said they would halt passenger flights as of Wednesday and temporarily cut staff wages.

Emirates said its flights remain suspended from Wednesday.

“There is a lot of confusion on the flight suspension,” a European diplomat said, adding that the sudden changes were making it increasingly difficult to get European citizens home.

The suspensions are likely to add more economic pressure on Dubai, which does not have the oil and gas wealth of the capital Abu Dhabi.

Gulf rival Qatar Airways on Tuesday said it was operating over 150 flights a day to more than 70 cities and would look to add more flights or use bigger aircraft “wherever possible”.

Some stores at malls in Dubai, a popular shopping destination, were shut ahead of the Wednesday closure deadline.

“This is a global problem. I don’t know why they haven’t closed (earlier),” said an employee.

Oman, with 84 coronavirus cases, announced it was suspending all domestic and international flights as of March 29, except cargo operations and flights to Musandam, an Omani enclave inside the UAE, according to state TV.

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